The Agrodome Farm Show, Rotorua, New Zealand

If you’re in Rotorua, New Zealand, and looking for a low exertion activity (with air-conditioning) that’s entertaining for the whole family — and a bit educational, I STRONGLY suggest a visit to the Agrodome. This 40-year-old “award-winning” Farm Show takes place on a 350 acre farm, that you can also pay to take a guided tour of (mostly a riding tour rather than a walking one, so also good for people with mobility issues). The attraction is really geared towards families, and their family priced ticket is a bit of a deal, as it costs the same as two adults and a child, while allowing three children. And if you check their website, they sometimes offer on-line ticket discounts. The show lasts an hour, and only happens three times a day, so make sure to time your arrival accordingly.  It’s a highly entertaining show, that’s in my opinion, and worth the $36.50 (NZD) [$24.03 USD] — even though the price seemed a bit steep to me at first.

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We arrived at the Agrodome pretty much first thing on our arrival into Rotorua, which I now know is one of the major tourism meccas for both for folks who are road-tripping through New Zealand and locals. As in, pretty much anyone who does the trip is going to be spending a day or two here taking in the sites, which include geysers, and other geothermal activities — mud pools, i.e., mud so hot it bubbles and is utilized for things like high-end full day spa treatments, etc.,. In addition, other attractions of interest to tourists have developed in the area, including multiple Māori cultural daytime and dinner shows, etc., rides of various types, and attractions like the Agrodome.

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To put it in perspective for Americans, Rotorua is a bit like the Wisconsin Dells area north of Chicago, the Gatlinburg area in the great smoky mountains, or the Canadian side of Niagara Falls (which is all casino’s, etc.). All of these locations began as places that people came to in order to appreciate the natural wonders of mother nature… but tend to have devolved over time into decidedly working and middle-class tourist traps, as the majority of their day-to-day customers tend to be nearby locals who can’t afford travel further afield. In ANY town like this, all the attractions tend to be a bit overpriced, I suppose this is done partly in order to make the customers feel like they’re buying something of value. (‘It’s expensive so it must be good’, being a pervasive misconception by the average customer that marketers utilize when positioning a product.)

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Again my favorite quote from American Gods by Neil Gaiman comes to mind

“So what is this place?” asked Shadow, as they walked through the parking lot toward a low, unimpressive wooden building.
“This is a roadside attraction,” said Wednesday. “One of the finest. Which means it is a place of power.”
“Come again?”
“It’s perfectly simple,” said Wednesday. “In other countries, over the years, people recognized the places of power. Sometimes it would be a natural formation, sometimes it would be a place that was, somehow, special. They knew that something important was happening there, that there was some focusing point, some channel, some window to the Immanent. And so they would build temples or cathedrals, or erect stone circles, or…well, you get the idea.”
“There are churches all across the States, though,” said Shadow.
“In every town. Sometimes on every block. And about as significant, in this context, as dentists’ offices. No, in the USA people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a giant bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.”
― Neil Gaiman, American Gods

That said, IF you get there early (before the final show — which is the one we attended, off to the left side (as you’re facing the stage) of the theater there’s a petting zoo type area with baby animals and ducks

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…they will be taking part in the show later…  However, if you wait till after the final show… they might not be there, as its sort of a holding area (I’m guessing they go back to see their mom’s afterwards).

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The show begins with a sort of “fashion show of sheep” beginning with the local star, the Marino. In case you’re unfamiliar, this breed produces the finest and softest wool of all the varieties. While expensive it is AMAZING, and any item made of it is utterly worth the investment. MOST my socks, with the exception of my compression stockings  (edema runs in my family) are merino wool — and have been since I experienced my first pair. First time I saw them was in shop catering to outdoorsy types, and I was like “$20 for a pair of SOCKS?!! Are you MAD?” but the staff members assured me that they were entirely worth it. They challenged me to buy one pair, wear them for a full week without washing, and then sniff them. Seriously… not only do these wick moisture from you feet, but they also naturally kill foot oder issues… AND they are incredibly sturdy and last way way way longer than any other socks I’ve ever owned (and never stretch out over the course of a day).

Each is led in individually, introduced to the crowd, and its particular attributes described… so for instance the breeds like Merino, that produce wool that’s great for clothing, while others are desirable more for their meat than their wool.

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In the above image he’s introducing the Drysdale breed; this New Zealand created breed is raised primarily for its wool. It was developed in the 1930’s by crossbreeding a genetically freakish Romney ram with unusually coarse wool another Romney and a Cheviots resulting in a new breed of genetically modified sheep. One of the freak attributes is that both genders have horns, and its wool grows so quickly that it has to be shorn twice a year…. and the wool it produces is coarse and sturdy, so it is great for things like rugs…

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The full selection of “beauty sheep” on display

Once all the sheep have been led in and introduced, that is when you’ll get to see, the thing I was most hoping to see…. a sheep being sheered

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You, or more likely your older kids, might be chosen from the crowd to come up on stage and experience the joys of milking a cow

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or the excitement of feeding baby lambs and alpacas (who are ridiculously cute)

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and then you’ll be able to watch demonstrations of sheep dogs showing off just how smart and capable they are.

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Initially, a single dog is asked to herd around the stage a small bunch of ducks, the ones from the petting farm area, proably because there simply wasn’t room to do it with sheep. But then a different dog is asked to displayed something far more impressive, the ability to jump on top of the sheep’s backs, running across them like stones in a stream …

something the dogs need to be able to do in order to get a better vantage point from which to view of the entire flock, and be able to protect them from possible threats

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such as wolves, AND then they do it as a pack, multiple dogs run on stage and they do it together… even running past each other without falling off. I was impressed, having not known they could do it.

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After this highpoint of the show, the audience was invited to come up on stage, pet the dogs and take their pictures with the sheep…. and folks didn’t need to be invited twice…

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people raced up there really quickly and competed with each other for the best photos and to pet the animals

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we took our time and I waited for the crowds to clear off….

After that, I of course insisted that I have a chance to check out the gift shop. For the most part it was pretty much the same stuff you see in almost every other gift shop in Australia, so not really that big of a deal. That said…

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I had spotted this toy, which was a stuffed animal with actual sheep’s wool as the coat and thinking I might want to buy it looked at the tag to do my normal “look but don’t buy” then…. go home and find it on-line for probably less money than at an impulse driven shop (like this one). While doing so I definitely noticed that it doesn’t actually SAY made in NZ anywhere on the tag … but in way that sure as hell would lead the less trained observer to assume it had been… and I was like, “HEH, their gift shop is selling NZ stuff not made in NZ!” (and knowing what that told me about the politics of the owners) …. and then when I got home and googled it, sure enough! There was actually a legal suit brought against this souvenir company for misleading tourist into thinking they were buying NZ goods.

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Ohakune, New Zealand’s BIG Carrot

Located at the south end of the Tongariro National Park (the filming location for Mordor, in Peter Jackson‘s Lord of the Rings move trilogy), in the small town of Ohakune, New Zealand (NZ), what is reputed to be the world’s largest carrot. Considered by many Kiwi’s to be an icon, the carrot stands 7.5 meters tall (24.6 Feet), and its known as being one of NZ’s most hugged things.

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As anyone who reads my blog knows, I have a sort of perverse love affair with BIG THINGS (this will be my 59th one to blog about), i.e., oversized road-side attractions. You tend to see them in small towns, places that people would otherwise not travel to; with the items built or purchased, as a way to draw in tourists. Casey, Illinois is probably the most obsessive example of this, as in they’ve got EIGHT big things around town that hold the Guinness World Records for being the world’s biggest, for that sort of item. America has a LOT of things like this, with the world’s biggest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas, probably being the most famous; it was in the hit movie Michael (1996) where the Arch Angle Michael — played as less than angelic by John Travolta — comes to earth specifically because he wants to see these sorts of things. I argue that anyone doing a road-trip across America is sort of obliged to search them out… because they are “Americana.” That said, once I started road tripping around Australia I discovered they were into this sort of stuff as well, and likewise,  New Zealand also has a few (although neither has as anywhere near as many can be found across the USA.)

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I found a very good Neil Gaiman quote on the topic of road side attractions, in his novel American Gods, which is now one my favorite books (read it three times at least):
“So what is this place?” asked Shadow, as they walked through the parking lot toward a low, unimpressive wooden building.
“This is a roadside attraction,” said Wednesday. “One of the finest. Which means it is a place of power.”
“Come again?”
“It’s perfectly simple,” said Wednesday. “In other countries, over the years, people recognized the places of power. Sometimes it would be a natural formation, sometimes it would be a place that was, somehow, special. They knew that something important was happening there, that there was some focusing point, some channel, some window to the Immanent. And so they would build temples or cathedrals, or erect stone circles, or…well, you get the idea.”
“There are churches all across the States, though,” said Shadow.
“In every town. Sometimes on every block. And about as significant, in this context, as dentists’ offices. No, in the USA people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a giant bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.”

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And that really is it… there’s an initial excitement as you head towards the Big thing… a profound level of satisfaction once you’ve arrived AT it, and then an underlying dissatisfaction once you’ve seen it.

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Anyone interested in WHY the big carrot is there, please to read the signs in the images above — basically, it comes down to the town being (for a time) New Zealand’s largest producers of carrots. The fiberglass carrot had initially been made as a TV advertising prop for a bank promotion, but later became available for sale;

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2a35.jpgat this point, a group of the town’s vegetable growers Association, who had been looking for symbol to represent their importance to the town (many of whom were Chinese immigrants who had arrived in the 1920’s) bought it. It was then moved from Wellington, it original location, to the entrance to Ohakune in 1984, in a ceremony attended by NZ’s prime minister.

YtITP+naSuKrnMCKZc74Jg_thumb_d0fd.jpgThat said, once the ‘dissatisfaction’ stage had passed, I was more than a bit delighted with the activity park that the city has developed alongside the “erection” intended for both young and old to enjoy.

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The park includes a massive playground for kids housed with some scary looking examples of other vegetables grown in the area. I think they’re supposed to be cute, but both me and my friend thought they were kind of freaky looking… AND kids are NOT allowed to climb on them, so what’s the point of them being there?UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2a3b.jpgThat said there is a nice selection equipment and game areas for the kids

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As well as exercise equipment for the adults

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This kind of made me sad… the towns forestry industry had added their own presentation section in the park, which included this massive log. According to the History of the log, it had been growing since the 13th century. When they felled the tree  in 1955, and when they got it to the mill they couldn’t use it because it was too big for the saws.. such a waste!

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There’s also a small area for people who just want a peaceful stroll through a green area, which feels a bit like walking through a patch of forest, along a stream, and is very restful. We saw more than few folks picnicking there.

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What I found amusing about it was clearly paid for with funds raised from local business all of whom got to embed a little advertisement into the concrete.

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And for the adults there’s also one of those mini outdoor gyms that are popping up all over place in public parks world-wide.

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That said, Ohakune is known for more than just vegetables. As I mentioned upfront, the active volcano in the background of the image above was the shooting location for the Mordor scenes in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, and is also has earned the being a duel status World Heritage Site both because of both its natural beauty and its religious importance to the Maori people. In summer, it is one of the country’s most popular full day hikes, known as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, with a terrain towards the top that some have compared to being on Mars due to its utter alienness. While in winter, it turns into something of a ski resort town (more affordable housing for those willing to drive to the slopes), with the closest resort being at Turoa).

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Picture of the volcano from the porch of our Airbnb

In fact that Airbnb we stayed at (it ROCKED, seriously, was like a really good BnB), the owners share their home in summer, but vacate it entirely every winter because of just how much money it earns them as a ski resort rental.

Hobbiton in Matamata, New Zealand: Evening Banquet Tour, and the Economic Impact that Lord of the Rings has had on the country

Located in what once was the laid-back Dairy town of Matamata, New Zealand (NZ), is the movie set turned tourist attraction, Hobbiton. It is a must see for any fan of Peter Jackson‘s Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movie series, of the J. R. R. Tolkien books of the same names. From an economic standpoint, this single tourist attraction, which happened almost by accident, has become the “flagship” for what is now the impressive movie-tourism industry that has evolved in NZ over the past 20 years. As a result, visitors can swing through the entire country on any number of “see all of the LOTR locations in 14 days” type tours, (most of whom also throw in a taste of Māori culture for good measure). However, for myself, I prefer to take my time when traveling. As such I suggest spending the night in or near Matamata, and timing your visit so that you can attend a Hobbiton evening Tour and Banquet, which only happens a few times a week — all told, for any Tolkien fan, it’s well worth the price (and the food ROCKS!!).

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[I need to do a quick shout out to the Hobbiton staff who worked “on set” on the evening of March 3, 2019. They are all amazingly well-trained customer service wonks who all seemed to love their jobs and not only never squashed our excitement, but rather actually aided our enjoyment. None of them were “phoning it in” so to speak. While the whole thing was impressively well choreographed (looking at youtube videos I see the same thing over and over), none of it FELT rehearsed or false. The whole time I felt as though I were being led through the set by friendly folks who seemed to genuinely enjoy our excitement to be doing it (like great teachers are) … And the food was not only delectable, but just enough to make sure everyone who wants seconds can have them (with just enough left over to feed the pigs); while not so much as to be a waste, etc,. That, and the timing of the meal was also perfect, so that no one ever felt rushed. BRAVO on a great performance! That said, shame that some of the staff at Shire’s rest aren’t that good, although, but, on second thought… maybe that’s why they were delegated to that location and kept off set.]

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FIRST thing you’ll see when exiting International Arrivals in Aukland, need I say more? As in RIGHT in your line of sight after customs.

Let’s be real, if you’re a nerd/geek like I am, your number one motivator to go to New Zealand was probably to see the 12 acre Hobbiton movie set. Other than for that, it’s hard to think of what other reason might have drawn over half a million people to the small town of Matamata in just over 10 years. Even the town itself recognizes this reality, to the extent that their welcome sign says “Welcome to Hobbiton” in BIG letters, and only refers to itself as Matamata in the small print (see first image above)….Most tourists coming here believe the set, is simply what was left behind from when they made the LOTR movies back in the early 2000’s, but the truth is a bit more complicated.

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Local businesses in Matamata clearly understand what’s drawing people to them

Peter Jackson chose to build his Hobbit Shire in this general part of New Zealand because the region’s natural landscape of green rolling hills already conformed with his mind’s eye vision of the shire, as described in the books. In essence, the local topography is grass-covered sand dunes. This is why the area mostly supports things like dairy and wool production, as it is great for feeding livestock but less so for planting. While sandy soil is good for growing things like root vegetables and corn, that is only when the land is generally flat. With hills like these, any farming of that sort becomes difficult. Driving past the other farms that encircle the movie set area you quickly realize that this Hobbit like topography is NOT special or limited to the small farm inhabited by the movie set; the below image for instance was taken along a road about a 20 minute drive southeast of where the Hobbiton set is located, and could just have easily been chosen.

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Photo taken outside of Tapapa, about 20 min south of Hobbiton

According to the Hobbiton website, construction of what was intended to be 39 temporary hobbit-hole homes began in March 1999, and filming started in December of that same year… and lasted only three months. Once filming completed in early 2000, they began to tear down the set (as had been set forward in the initial contract) but then the rainy season began, which put a halt to the process. During that time the owner of the farm began giving private tours to friends and family, but word got out and then strangers began to trickle in, wanting to see Hobbiton with their own eyes (only he didn’t have the legal permission to allow that, let alone charge for it).

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NOTE the sign saying FULLY BOOKED, and this was off season

As such, the owner changed his mind and negotiated with the film company to stop the dismantling of the set, which left a bunch of empty holes in the ground and only 17 plain white plywood facades in place [click this link for an article with images of how it looked then]. The negotiations to turn it into a tourism business took about a year, and included the stipulation that the studio earn a percentage of the money from every tour given. When finally completed in 2002, formalized tours of the movie-set began, and a former sheep shearing building that belonged to the owner was retrofitted into the “Shire’s Rest,” an area where tourists assembled before being taken onto the grounds proper.

The following are clips showing how this whole location, which took a lot of money to build was actually only used for a few short minutes in the films….

Keep in mind that Hobbiton is JUST the exterior shots, all interior ones happened in an entirely different part of New Zealand, in a film studio.

Among the people in my tour group were an older couple who told me that this was their third visit to the site. Their first had been back around this time in the early 2000’s, and that at the time the whole thing looked more than a bit dilapidated… with bits of plywood where the doors had been … sort of like a boarded up Hobbit ghost town, and yet, the tourists came… but they claimed that this had not dampened their excitement at the time to be able to see it, even with weeds growing everywhere, etc.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_28abWhen the studio returned to the site in 2009, asking if they could use the land again for the filming of the second trilogy which focused on “The Hobbit” (released in 2012, 2013 and 2014), the owner agreed, with the “price” being that this time rather than using materials intended for temporary film sets, all of the Hobbit holes had to be built using quality materials — and that they be left in place afterwards to support his now ongoing tourist trade. The rebuilding proceeded in 2010. At that time, since the location was now going to be a much more central feature to the films, five additional Hobbit Holes were added. (As I showed above, in the first trilogy the shire was only visible in the movie for a few minutes) When filming began again in 2011, actors commented on how the location, rather than showing any of the tell-tale signs of being a movie set, now looked like a real, but idealized, village where people lived and worked. This in turn, increased the value for visitors ten-fold, and like Disney World adding a new ride, word of mouth about the improvements generated not only return business, but new interest as well.

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However, at that time, no “tourist facilities” existed within the movie set area itself, which the ever-increasing number of attendees made problematic.  If you needed bathrooms or snacks, those needs could only be fulfilled back at the Shire’s Rest facility, before or after your visit (or porta potties, YUCH!). So in 2012 The Green Dragon Inn was built; it is an exact replica of the Inn, as seen in the movies. This final ‘destination building’ not only provided bathrooms, but solved a major complaint of tourists up until then.

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The Dragon Inn’s bathrooms: as imagined by the studio’s designers — I’m guessing, because this wasn’t in the movie… love the handicapped hobbit

As our guides made a point of telling us REPEATEDLY, Hobbiton was only built to provide exterior shots for the LOTR movies, and all interior ones were done at a movie studio, so “no, you can’t go into any of the hobbit homes” (let alone ask to use their bathrooms); and even where you could step in, what’s behind the door is not a real home (see images below). The Green Dragon Inn filled that gap in the experience by giving tourists the much longed for chance to enjoy a hobbit interior. As such, the Dragon acts as both the conclusion and the “HIGH point/climax” of your visit. It is both a place where tourists can have that experience, while having a rest (for a very limited time before being shuffled off the set again). There they are given one free drink of their choosing (from their special brews, for sale at the Shire’s Rest and at other gift shops in Matamata), and the option to buy more drinks, and/or a snack (or use the bathroom). BUT, as I said, on the normal tours your visit to the Inn is VERY limited, about 10 minutes tops. So signing up for an evening tour that includes the Banquet is the ONLY way you’ll be allowed to truly enjoy it at your leisure.

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The closest I got to Mount Ngauruhoe, this trip…

However, Hobbiton is just the flagship/main attraction, for a movie based travel industry that has evolved in the nation. What I’m about to say is a bit bizarre, and might offend some New Zealanders … but bear with me…. Between the two existing trilogies there are already 170 LOTR filming locations scattered around NZ’s two main islands, arguably at least as many locations to see as there are ‘things to do’ at Disney World — the world’s most famous movie-based attraction (if you include all the shuttle ferries, stuff to see at the hotels, etc). And both offer no shortage of tour books and web sites to help visitors discover where each and every one of those ‘attractions’ are and how best to appreciate them. Only while the excitement offered at Disney tends to be more passive (you sit, and are taken through something), New Zealand’s LOTR attractions, like Tom Sawyer’s Island or most of Paris Disney, are all walk through experiences, only with a lot more exertion required, trekking and mountain climbing, etc., and a lot fewer rides (think the tour busses). So it is in fact comparable, albeit different.

So for example, Mordor’s Mount Doom in LOTR is actually Mount Ngauruhoe, an active stratovolcano, that is one of the two such peaks located within Tongariro National Park; and like ALL mountain tops in NZ, it is a sacred place to her Māori people, and as such, by law, you are NOT allowed to drive to the top without first obtaining special permission. In fact, if you look at the google map for the place, while there are dirt roads going by it (accessible for those with mobility problems only if you rented a 4-wheel drive, and got official authorization in advance), there are in fact no roads that go up it; so if you want to see it your options are to hire a helicopter to fly you over (like I said, a movie-travel industry), or even more popularly, you can find local lodgings and choose to spend a full day hiking to the top. Oh, and if you want “shows” like at Disney, I suggest Māori cultural experiences. For myself, I STRONGLY prefer taking the time to relish things, and if I ever got the capacity back (unlikely without surgery and PT) would totally hike it.

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That said, the reality is, you actually don’t need to pay for a group tour to take you to see the LOTR sites/sights if you don’t want to, nor even buy a book on the subject to help you plan your trip. If you’re not someone who’s into pre-planning, you can in fact just impulsively fly to NZ, and figure it out as you go along. To paraphrase the New Zealand tourism board’s website, there are over 80 i-SITE visitor information centers scattered around the country, many of them located in distinctive or historic buildings (like the one above). In them you will find no shortage of pamphlets, and trained professionals, who can inform you about everything there is to do in any particular area you’re currently in, including which parts were film locations. And, of course, while in these i-SITE centers, you can do some souvenir shopping — as I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t have a gift shop.

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The government clearly knows from whence its tourist prosperity comes, and embraces that connection to Lord of the Rings, especially in Matamata. The town’s i-SITE building was even built to look like a cross between a traditional British home, and a Hobbiton one (note the round doors). While you COULD book your tickets here, in this particular case I REALLY don’t suggest leaving THAT to the last-minute. As mentioned repeatedly, Hobbiton is the flagship attraction to a WHOLE industry, and demand is high while availability limited. The set can only accommodate a finite group of tourists per day … particularly if you want to take advantage of any of the “tour and a meal” options. So seriously, book ahead for this part of you LOTR’s tour of NZ.

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While the Hobbiton tours began officially in 2002, in what was a half-broken down movie set, by 2012, after the repairs and upgrades had been completed (including the Green Dragon Inn) it had become enough of an attraction that it had 17 full-time people working on staff, and by 2013, attendance was said to average about 400 to 600 people daily, with as many as 2,000 showing up at the peak of the season; so, somewhere around 220,000 visitors annually, a number which increased to 350,000 in 2015Tours usually leave Shire’s Rest for the movie set every half hour (you can NOT enter the set on your own, you MUST be part of a tour) and, each of those lasts for about two hours. On average days, the last tour starts at 3:30, and on peak ones their hours are extended by just one hour, so that the last regular/no meal tour starts at 4:30. And, when they say pre-booking is essential, they mean it. As such, I would NOT expect to show up at the site, or even at the i-sight center the day of (or even the day before) and expect to be able to just walk on… unless you are very very lucky. I booked my ticket for the banquet tour a good three weeks in advance… during the OFF season, and there was already only limited seating available.

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One of the things that really amused me when we got to the Shire’s Rest parking lot was the sheer number of Jucy vans parked there…  for those who don’t know, this company was founded in Australia initially as a campervan rental company (vans converted into campers), although they’ve expanded into renting cars. For the most part (although they’ve come out with some subtler ones recently — note the plain white ones in the upper right image) these rentals tend to be pretty hard to miss. Most of the vans are the garish green you see above, while others are covered in what looks like graffiti art with off-color images and messages written on them. For those, you’ll rarely see two exactly alike. Their business model is to provide small, energy-efficient, well designed and highly functional, camper vans… at an affordable price. Their product initially was aimed at the backpacker crowd (young travelers), but as they’ve expanded into the family market they’ve toned down the exteriors of their rentals. If you want to do a LOTR tour of the island on your own (not part of a 14 day tour group), then you might seriously want to consider renting one of these.

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Adjacent to the parking lot you’ll find this small Information building, where those who have already reserved their tickets on-line (i.e., pretty much everyone) are asked to check in. (The window off to the left is a small ice cream shop.) When I was booking I wanted the longest stay possible, once I discovered that you’re NOT allowed to wander around the place on your own. I considered both the Tour & Meal combo, and the Evening Banquet tour options, but the former appeared no real competition to the latter. The “meal” option puts you into a tent that’s ADJACENT to the Dragon Inn (NOT inside), where there’s a Buffett… i.e., standing in line with lord knows how many other people to fill your plate. This option lasts for 2.5-3 hours (2 hours for the tour, and then about a full hour to eat). While the banquet option involves sitting down to an already drool worthy, family style laid out table where instead of being in a tent you’re comfortably INSIDE the warmth and comfort of the Dragon Inn. AND not only do you get to see the shire during the golden hour, with the sun setting over the hills, but you also get led through a 2nd time, late at night. So you see it in daylight, and you get to see it lit up by candlelight (well electric, but close enough). The Banquet tour is the longest visit option, lasting about 4+ hours: 2 hours for the tour, and then about an hour and a half spent at the inn, followed by the 2nd walk through the shire at night….. more details to come (see below).

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Once you arrive at the Shire’s Rest, originally the farm’s sheep shearing and wool shed building, which was retrofitted to its new purpose, there are sufficient things to do that, while you’re REQUIRED to arrive 15 minutes in advance of your tour’s departure time, you might want to get there a full half hour before that.

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To the right of the building (image above) is a small shaded area of benches and ropes, where you line up when it’s time to load onto the busses. The first floor of the main building holds the ticketing center, and a gift-shop selling a wide variety of LOTR “stuff” (most of which is available from online sellers). My tendency when it comes to places like this is, I window-shop the shops, but don’t buy. Having worked as a catalog photographer back when I was in my 20’s, I know full well how good we were able to make piece of crap items look in the photos… so before I buy I want to see the items with my own eyes. However, places like this tend to be overpriced and rely on your excitement about the visit (impulse buying) to drive sales. So, I take photos of the stuff that interests me (try to get the name of the producers, etc.) and then try to find it used on eBay.  Probably the only location specific items I’d seriously consider buying here are the postcards, and the LOTR themed Southfarthing™ beverage range, of Middleearth wines and such, which can be purchased here, or at the i-SITE center back at Matamata, or at the Green Dragon (but that are NOT available on-line… I’ve been looking, no luck)… and of course there are clothing items to be purchased made of local wools.

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The guy bottom right brought his Gollum character on the tour (will show up again later)

Upstairs on the building’s 2nd floor is a full service cafe that will provide you with cooked foods and hot coffee until 3pm, at which point their kitchen closes. Here is where you can find “second breakfast,” lamb burgers, and fish and chips. After 3pm, any already prepared foods that are still in the refrigerated case are available for sale, until the close of business, but nothing hot. Apparently, Shire’s Rest’s kitchen is also available to cater weddings, functions and company events.

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Adjacent to the main building is a smaller establishment called the Garden Bar, which offers outdoor seating only, and sells wine, beer and a small selection of nibbles. There are bathrooms adjacent to both the bar and the cafe. When it’s time for your tour you assemble in the area I described before, and are loaded up into busses and vans.

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If you’re given a choice (you might not be) the difference is this: The busses have a built-in video system where you’ll be shown a composite movie timed to last the entire trip. It is made-up from all scenes shot in this location, and all six LOTR movies, so that when you arrive you’ll have been recently reminded of what you’re looking at.

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The vans do not have this system, and instead there’ll be a tour guide who will recite to you about all sorts of facts and figures about the location (which I assume the movie also does), and will point out the one film location the busses pass (the one in the image above); the guide however can do something that the movie can’t, i.e., answer any questions you might have. I was in the van. The location above, if I recall correctly, was where the wizard Gandalf and the Hobbit Frodo pass through, while riding together on the wagon when traveling towards the shire at the beginning of the first trilogy.

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Once you arrive on the set proper, the entire group from all the conveyances will collect together and be given instructions of what you can and can not do: where you can walk, etc. The group will then be broken into manageable subgroups, each with its own guide. The groups will all take slightly different paths so that there’s never too many people in one place at one time, but all of the groups will ultimately see all the same things, but will come at them from different paths.

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According to a Forbes article from 2012, the making of the Lord of the Rings movies in NZ has touched the lives of each and every New Zealander, whether they realize it or not. Firstly, NZ is a place which, back when I was in high-school in the 1980’s I remember being laughingly described as having more sheep than people, and not much else. As a result, (and this excludes the people who have moved to the country in the 15 years since the movies came out) pretty much the entire population found themselves at one degree of separation from the film’s production.

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Firstly, from a country of 3.88 million (at the time) about 20,000 locals were hired as extras to work in the films (about 1/16 of 1% of the population) — BUT if the average Facebook account is any measure — limiting it to those who will only friend people they know because of face to face interactions — each of these have about 450 friends, family and co-workers each… and 20,000 X 450 = 9 million…. far more than the 3.88 million of New Zealand’s population in 2001. But the hiring of local resources in the making of the film didn’t stop there by ANY measure…

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According to this site, 1,200 suits of armor, 1,600 pairs of prosthetic feet and ears were made and used along with 2,000 weapons to recreate the battle scenes — and even if these were made abroad and imported, all of these had to be handled, organized, and distributed locally… which requires manpower. (The following video, which clarifies a lot of misunderstandings about the story that are held by people who’ve seen the movies but not read the books, includes a scene where two people are struggling to get a prosthetic hobbit’s foot onto an actor’s real one — its worth watching)

And the hiring did not end there; according to one of the officials for Tourism New Zealand whose job it is to focus on people arriving from abroad, Gregg Anderson “During a fight scene in Return of the King, I can see my niece’s horse.”

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Additionally, according to the same source, in order to create Hobbiton, 5,000 cubic meters of vegetable and flower gardens were planted a year before filming. According to our tour guide while MOST of Hobbiton is natural landscape, the homes did need to be dug into the hillsides, and some of the contours of those hills were changed subtly to support the lie that there were homes within them…

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As already mentioned, only a few of the doorways built into the sides of these hills actually lead to any sort of interior space. In such cases, there is usually JUST enough room for an actor or actors, to open a door and walk in or out (see the image below) … MOST of the doors in Hobbiton are just exterior facades leading to nothing– although they all had to LOOK like they are doors of actual homes that lead to something.

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The above home with the Red door, was the ONE such accessible space that tourists to the Hobbiton set are allowed into.  There was enough standing space inside for maybe three people, if one of them was crouched… and the tour guide sort of lined us up so each of us who wanted it could get a picture of themselves standing in the doorway.

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Bag-end, Bilbo’s Home

In each of the cases where the door opens to an actual space (as in actors must be able to enter), only enough of the interior is decorated as was necessary to support the illusion when said actor opened the door and the camera peered through it, if only for an instant. The above is Bag End the home of one of the main characters, Bilbo Baggins, the elder Hobbit who is in possession of the ring at the beginning of the initial LOTR movie trilogy, and the protagonist of the The Hobbit, the second movie trilogy. And as you can see, if you look through the doorway, you are given the impression there’s an actual hallway behind it… This however is the least impressive of the illusions of the set…

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That reward goes to the large tree above Bag End … it is a FAKE tree!!! While in the original movie there was a real tree there (although apparently even that was a cut-down tree used for the filming), what currently stands is a smaller replica with silk leaves. This is because of continuity issues in film making. When they filmed the original LOTR, they didn’t know it would be SUCH a big hit, or that they’d be filming The Hobbit a few years later. The first trilogy filmed (LOTR), in the fictional time-line, happened 60 years AFTER the story that happened in the second trilogy, The Hobbit (confused yet?), and trees GROW quite a bit in 60 years. As such, for the Hobbit (60 years before), that tree (which had been seen in the LOTR) had to be a smaller tree, requiring that they shrink the tree in order to maintain continuity… with no way to find a 2nd smaller tree to cut down with exactly the same sort of branch pattern as in the first trilogy (no two trees are exactly alike). SO, it was just easier to make a fake one! Movie Magic!%JrDeNLsSfmes89bJfdzBA_thumb_d92a

Another illusion manufactured at the location has to do with the size of Hobbits. According to Tolkien, hobbits are supposed to be between two and four feet tall, so the biggest are a bit shorter than the small boy in the pink shirt. I on the other hand stand 5’4″. The reason there’s such variation in the size of the doors is to manufacture the lie, with door sized calculated to falsify the impression of size the various actors had to create vis-à-vis the characters they were playing.

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An actor is seen outside of the above yellow door, so it’s human sized

Returning however to the economics of the thing: The (so far) SIX Lord of the Ring movies (which together cost slightly over one billion to make) were all major world-wide hits whose combined releases have to date generated $5,886,273,810 in worldwide box-office revenue. Because of the various businesses that have developed to support both the film industry and tourism, the massive success has gone on to have a long-term economic impact on the country of New Zealand that can not be overstated. As evidence, the positive impact of the first three LOTR films on NZ’s economy was enough to ensure that the government has not only gave Peter Jackson some controversial tax breaks, but also changed local employment laws in order to ensure that he didn’t keep to his threat of moving the Hobbit and all other future movies to cheaper locations.

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Currently tourism is New Zealand’s second largest industry after Dairy. Ask any of the long time locals and they’ll admit that Peter Jackson’s choice to use their country’s topography as the backdrop for his movies did more to advertise those natural wonders, and hence to put their nation on the tourism map, than ANY amount of advertising done by their government.

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Between the LOTR’s initial release in 2001, and 2012, the country saw a 50% increase in tourism, and even though only 1% of travelers (in 2012) said the movies were the ONLY thing that drew them, 6% of those asked admitted that the movies, and seeing the locations with their own eyes was one of the motivators for flying there — which accounted for about $162 million USD in tourism dollars. Even among those who were NOT motivated to travel to New Zealand because of the movies, 80% of them knew the films had been and were continuing to be filmed there, because of her unique natural wonders, a knowledge which helped them to see it as a desirable tourism destination.

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That said, the fact is that Peter Jackson, COULD have filmed all of his interior scenes anywhere in the world, but because he chose to shoot all of them in his home country of New Zealand, and then insisted on doing all of the post production  work there as well … at Weta Digital (a special effects house he founded) and at Park Road Post (formerly a small state-owned post production facility, but now a large one owned by Jackson) in Wellington — sometimes referred to as the house Frodo built, and due to Jackson’s influence now considered by some to be the best in the world … all of this together helped to build film facilities within the country that are now a 3 billion dollar industry NZD (New Zealand dollars).

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As mentioned previously, back in 2013 there was apparently some upset when Peter Jackson had threatened to move the filming and production of the Hobbit trilogy to places like Eastern Europe, etc., where it could have been filmed more affordably. By doing so, he successfully blackmailed the country’s government into not only coughing up $67 million NZD in tax breaks for his production, on top of having already in 2010, having had the country’s employment laws changed to his likings. The ‘Hobbit law’ — officially called the Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Bill resulted in a lot of outcry not just from actors, but also from the nation’s workers at large. This change in the law barred anyone working in NZ’s film industry from collective bargaining, and stipulated that any actors working in film production would be listed as contractors, unless they signed a contract that explicitly listed them as employees, i.e., sort of a BIG DEAL from the point of unions, etc.

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One has to keep in mind that just the parts of the film industry that evolved out of LOTR had in 2016 added $1.015 billion to NZ’s real Gross Domestic Product, so clearly, those tax breaks were paid back, with interest, and that was only about 1/3 of NZ’s entire $3.3 billion in revenue earned from the screen industry at large for that same year. In part this is because the LOTR franchise helps to supports 2,700 other businesses  (carpenters, costumers, set catering, etc) …. businesses that can then go on to serve other productions in the movie industry, and whose very existence make NZ a more attractive alternative to movie makers in general, including the new online-TV production companies like Netflix and Amazon…. it’s a rising tide that lifts all boats, so to speak.

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And, the cream in that coffee is that most of these jobs are supported to the tune of 80-90% by money from the film budgets of FOREIGN companies (not NZ tax dollars), the majority of which come from Hollywood that again feeds money into the local NZ economies. All of this LOTR prosperity may account for why the New Zealand post office released stamps with the Hobbit characters on them, and Air New Zealand has two planes decorated with a Tolkienesque theme. And things like this:

This also explains why, in 2018, the new government had under pressure given in to taking a look at making changes to the Hobbit Law, while refusing to repeal it entirely (which is what their constituency had wanted); and this rejection was in spite of being WAY more liberal than the previous government. As a general rule, no government is going to ‘kill the goose that’s laying the golden eggs’ without extreme provocation.

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Another VERY important point to know (that would surprise most people), is that while New Zealand’s economy is ranked first in the entire world for its socially progressive policies, and has a reputation for being one of the cleanest and greenest among the First World/western block, high incomeOrganisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries….  the reality is that it is, ironically, also the most DEregulated government within that institution. This is the result of the economic policies of Roger Douglas, who was NZ’s Minister of Finance back in 1984, as part of the country’s Fourth Labour Government (1984-1990). Known as Rogernomics, a hat-tilt to Ronald Reagan‘s  Reaganomics, he had instituted a set of neoliberal economic policies, the most important of which from the perspective of this piece, was an almost complete deregulation of NZ’s industries.

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Deregulation is almost always a good thing…. in the beginning. According to one study, between 1978 and 1998 employment in NZ increased by 50,000 jobs, an increase of 2.6% in a country that at the time had a population that grew, during that period, from 3.121 million to 3.8 million, and kept growing to today’s 4.794 million, all of which demanded a LOT of new buildings to go up, especially in city centers like Auckland. Keep in mind Peter Jackson began building the Hobbiton Movie set within this deregulatory economic context, in 1999. Of course the downside of deregulation is shoddy construction, increased pollution, etc.

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View from our Airbnb in Auckland, New Zealand, note all the new construction

I had my first hint that something of the sort was going on during my first days in the country, when we were at our Airbnb in Auckland. At the time I had commented to my travel buddy on the high number of newly constructed buildings that (to my well-traveled eye) looked like Asian construction. Architecturally, there’s all sorts of decorative devices you see in Asia that you’ll never see in the west, for good reason. Back when I was in my 20’s I did an internship with a Japanese ceramics firm that among a plethora of other things, made the easy to clean decorative tiles you see lining the sides of Japanese buildings. When I asked my boss why they didn’t expand into the US market, he told me, “We can’t. Those tiles are only stuck to the sides with a sort of glue, and they have a tendency to fall down from time to time and hit people in the head. In Asia, that’s no big deal because if it happens the victim’s family looks on it as just being bad karma. In the USA you blame the company for unsafe building practices, and it ends up in a massive lawsuit.” And then of course I lived in Korea for a few years, so I’m more than familiar with this sort of pretty but questionable constructionUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_cbc3

One day as I was stepping out of that same Airbnb (in Auckland), I came across a real estate saleswoman trying to sell an apartment in our building to this young guy. He was clearly annoyed and wanted to know if she had anything NOT in this building. Out of curiosity I asked her what was the place they were selling and the price, it was about $200K USD, which struck me as suspiciously cheap for a one bedroom in a high-rise apartment in the middle of any downtown, let alone in the nations largest city. She admitted the building had “problems.” I asked what kind, and she admitted it had all sorts of problems, not just one or two, and that the owners might not be able to fix any of them although they were trying. The price was so low because you needed to be able to pay in cash as no bank would give you a loan to buy a place in this building… In other words, these beautiful new buildings in downtown Auckland, most of which looked to me like Asian construction, were in fact, of … probably Chinese construction. Again, what happens when you deregulate the construction industry…. is builders don’t do what they’re not absolutely required to do… which can lead to problems.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_294fBut in the land of deregulation well…. it’s a double-edged sword. But for the deregulated environment, I doubt that Jackson would have had it so easy making his film here, or building his post production companies, and quite likely Hollywood would have pressured him into making the film elsewhere.

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Deregulation, like Daenerys Stormborn’s dragons in GOT can be HIGHLY problematic doubled edged swords

And but for his having had done all that in New Zealand, we’d not be having this conversation. Additionally, had regulations existed, its questionable if Hobbiton as a tourist attraction would have been legally allowed to develop in the haphazard way it did, as things of this sort normally have to jump through any number of regulatory health and safety hoops…. like it not having a bathroom for the first 10 years of its existence … So… there’s that.

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The Dragon Inn even  has a resident cat!

Returning to the tour: After an unexpectedly long wait, during which folks explored the area and took lots of pictures (see the ones above)… we were all brought together in the bar area, where a pair of heavy velvet curtains hid the dining room from us. We were asked to PLEASE not take pictures until we were seated at our tables, although they understood the temptation, because if we did the food would get cold and they promised that there’d be plenty of time to inspect the room between our main course and the desserts.

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They then made a big To-do of opening the curtains, asking for volunteers from the group to do the big reveal (the two women in the photo, bottom left) and we all piled into the room like a bunch of excited kids … (really the excitement in the room was palpable)

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That said the spread was HIGHLY impressive not only to look at but also to taste. There were two big roasted chickens which seemed to be of the rotisserie variety and hence very moist and flavorful, a big chunk of salmon that was also not dry in any way, a roasted pumpkin stuffed with succotash (which kind of surprised me because that’s very much an American dish — corn, tomatoes, and peppers all being New World foods — but as I said sandy soil like the sort that the local topography is made of supports growing corn, so I’m guessing these were all local ingredients). There as also a big tray full of lamb shanks that sat on a bed of bubble and squeak, and came with a huge jug of brown gravy, and a mushroom dish that was to DIE for (if you like mushrooms, which I do). There was this huge dish containing a single coiled sausage cut like pizza, resulting in slices of varying sizes (quite tasty).

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Remember the Gollum from before? The guy put him on the table to watch us eat… And look at that guy licking his fingers, you can’t fake that kind of enthusiasm

There was one tray of roasted vegetables, and a big bowl of roasted cut up potato (with spices) again very good… A green salad which to be honest I didn’t touch… cause with all this… fuck no I’m not eating a salad.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2949There was also a bowl of mashed sweet potato, which apparently in NZ is called Kumara, and has been a Māori/ Polynesian staple from BEFORE the white man arrived. This is kind of fascinating, again, because the sweet potato is believed to also be a new world food. I looked it up and the carbon dating of some sweet potatoes in Polynesia verified the vegetable’s presence there as early as 1400 CE., so before Columbus’s 1492 sailing. There are two theories, one is that Polynesians were SUCH masters of the ocean that they were already in limited trade contact with South America before the European discovery of the same. Another theory (for which no physical supporting evidence has yet been found), suggests that sweet potatoes might have already been on the Polynesian islands before the first humans ever arrived.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2978

My LEAST favorite dish was a beef stew type thing, which they described as being beef and ale. It wasn’t very tasty (kind of bland actually) and the beef chunks were very dry and chewy. That said, there were other people at the table talking about how good it was, so to quote one of my mom’s favorite sayings:
על טעם וריח אין להתווכח
….which translates to, “on taste and smell there is nothing on which to argue”

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What amused me no end was that the Green Dragon’s resident cat came to join us when it was time to sit down to dinner. He (she?) walked around the room, and then spotted an empty chair at our table and jumped up into it. The cat was VERY well-behaved, made no attempt to get at the food and just sat and waited for one of us to serve her — at least until she was spotted by one of the servers and shooed out …

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This almost made me cry because I had a cat (R.I.P.) that used to do the same thing. After my mom had died, every Friday night, I cooked all the other nights, my dad made dinner which included his home-made chicken soup. (To die for: the man used actual chicken feet which is the missing secret ingredient for why your soup is never as good as your grandmothers — as almost no one cooks whole chickens anymore.) Our cat would come and sit by the table, wait to be served … he loved that soup… and then went away, having never put his paws on the table, cause he knew it wasn’t allowed.

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More than enough time was given to us (and enough food supplied) that you could go back for seconds if you wanted to. Me, my stomach isn’t that big and I wanted to save room for dessert… so when I was done I walked around took some more pictures, allowing me to see some of the area in twilight.

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And then once EVERYONE was finished, and not before… One of the great things about this meal was you got no sense of being rushed during the banquet, the waiters came and cleared the tables, and then almost completely reset them to prepare for our dessert. During that time everyone got a chance to enjoy the twilight, or explore the room and all its details. (Not sure where this girl found the map of middle earth) While the trays of dessert were much smaller than what had been laid out when we first arrived, realistically we were all so full from the first course that it was more than enough, and there were leftovers when we were done. (Clearly, these guys have done this before — HAH! — and have the serving sizes down to a science, although the staff does a great job of making their performances ‘fresh’ so that you feel like you’re in a warm embrace of friends rather than being shuffled through something choreographed.)

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Look at that anticipation!

The dessert tray consisted firstly of a kiwi and strawberry sauce filled Pavlova (one of the national dishes of both Australia and NZ) topped with fresh cream. For those who don’t know, the Pavlova is essentially a large bowl-shaped container made of white meringue, created in honor of the famous Russian prima ballerina of the same name, who was also the first ever to go on a world-wide tour, and was responsible for introducing modern ballet to the world. This tour included Australia and New Zealand, and at the time she was the single most famous performer to ever visit here… so it was a REALLY big deal. In honor of her arrival the dessert was created, but it’s a point of serious contention between the two countries — a sort of tongue in cheek war that is talked about AD NAUSEUM — as to which one did it first … as apparently it was a great minds think alike sort of issue with two different chefs in the two nations coming up with the same idea for the SAME dessert named in her honor

…. because her most famous dance was The Dying Swan, a dance she performed 4,000 times, which involves wearing a white tutu that looked like Meringue.

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In addition to the obligatory Pavlova, there was a bowl of seasonal fresh fruit, British Bakewell tarts (bottom of image), butterscotch sauce (in the orange jug, which went REALLY well on the tarts), an Irish apple crumble (top of the photo), a bowl of Yogurt with honey and cinnamon (which at first we thought might be cream but it tasted wrong, and no one really knew what to do with it…), and a big metal jug full of Vanilla custard… which kind of goes well with anything

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After the meal was over, they handed about every third one of us a lantern, and they took us on a walk through the set at night. More than a few people supplemented that light with the flashlight function on their smartphones… The night was so clear, and there was SO little light pollution that if you look very hard at the photo above towards the upper right corner, you can see a star!!!

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I had NO trouble photographing the night sky with my iPhone’s camera (which generally sucks at low light images) and seeing stars in the image (see above)… because it was SO dark that what my eye was seeing wasn’t just a few stars, it was the Milky Way.

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After the walk through they had us form a circle and talked to us about our trip, asking us to remember our favorite moments and hold them in our memories. And then they had all the lights turned off, had us close our eyes for about a minute and then open them and look up… and just wow. IF you’re lucky enough to go on a night when the sky is clear, and I was… just wow…  and then those of us who wanted to got our photos taken in front of this one door, which was lit up with a powerful spot lamp

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After much searching I found this professionally shot advertisement for the banquet tour… that includes drone shots and (what were clearly directed actors as) tourists… but it shows stuff I could never have accurately filmed, like the night-time walk with lanterns … and the scene of the guy taking a bite out of a chicken leg so enthusiastically that it made me drool

As I’ve already said, I think it’s important to remember that Hobbiton is just the flagship for what’s become an entire LOTR based travel industry. Between the two existing trilogies there are already 170 LOTR filming locations scattered around NZ’s two main islands, enough to necessitate MULTIPLE trips on the part of any obsessed fan who wants to see them all, which can of course include multiple visits to Hobbiton. AND, because of the huge success that was the Game of Thrones (GOT) — which I’m currently bingeing in preparation for the release of the final season next week, Amazon has gotten on the SciFi band wagon and has ponied up a budget of one BILLION dollars for what is being advertised as the most expensive TV show ever made, an original five season Lord of the Rings. This is sure to happen because Amazon has ALREADY paid $250 million to Tolkien‘s estate, just for the film rights, which were given with the caveat that the film HAS to go into production in the next two years

The following is a preview of the new series (although the first 30 seconds is about the wildly successful of GOT and how that influenced Amazon decision. Warning, contains spoilers):

All of which means that most likely not only will the Hobbiton set be closed once again for filming, and hence more changes will be made, but that there are going to be EVEN MORE LOTR locations to be visited in New Zealand, in addition to the 170 that already there. All of which, should the show be as big a hit as the movies were, will mostly likely generate even more increased tourism to New Zealand.

[Note, not that this matters to you guys but, I had spent 3 solid days composing a very detailed discussion with research and backing statistics… which WordPress LOST; I had revised it multiple times, always making sure the software said it had saved it, even quit and restarted the program a few times… each time was told it HAD saved, only to hit publish once I had it all as I wanted…  and have the WHOLE thing get erased…. well… but for the title, THAT got saved (I had changed it only about an hour before hitting publish). Many emails back and forth to company later and all I got from them was a “we’re sorry, its not on our servers, must have been a bug with the new update” … YOU THINK!!! Every photo uploaded got saved (and in the correct order), and the new title (which I had only just modified before posting)… but all the text, GONE. So the above is me trying to reconstruct it using my google search history,  the photos, in order to try to remind me what I had said the first time. Which took twice as long in part because it was so frustrating]

P.S. I was just watching this 60 minutes show about the making of Game of Thrones, and broke into a cheer when I learned the sets for places like Castle Black are following the lead of Hobbiton. They were built to withstand the elements, and will be turned into tourist attractions. WOOT!

Fitzroy Gardens, Melbourne Australia and The Not Captain Cook’s Cottage

[Updated – forgot to add some stuff before] Melbourne refers to itself as the garden city of Australia, and Fitzroy Garden is one of the city’s many landscaped gardens that earns it that title. The most famous attraction located within the garden is Cook’s cottage, which some sites advertise as having belonged to the famous Captain Cook, the explorer who ‘discovered Australia’; historical buff that I am, this made me excited to see it, but that claim — if you come across it, is wrong. It was never his, it was one of his parent’s homes, and he never lived there. That said Fitzroy Garden where the house is located, is free to explore, but the Cook’s Cottage itself — which has been one of the major tourist draws in Melbourne since it was first moved here in 1934… is NOT, free that is…

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Me, standing as close as you can get to the house without paying a fee

Fitzroy Gardens, in the suburb of East Melbourne. To be technical about it… It’s not actually IN Melbourne, which is one of these TINY dot on the map cities that has never annexed adjacent suburbs so that it could ‘grow’, like Chicago or New York City did, and has ‘neighborhoods’ that are legally separate entities; as such you really have to think of it as the greater Melbourne area when visiting, because Aussies seem to get very irritated when we call East Melbourne, just plain old Melbourne… because it’s not.

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“Technically” considered to be the Oldest building in all of the greater Melbourne area, as it has been dated to at least 1755 [Melbourne was founded in 1835], the cottage had belonged (at one time) to the father of James Cook (1728 –1779), the famous British explorer, navigator, cartographer, and captain in the Royal Navy, who was also the first “recorded” European to “discover” Australia…. That said, the man who “discovered” Australia MAY have (we don’t know for sure that he ever did), at best, slept there… when/if he visited his folks in his home town (one has to assume he may have at some point)…. so yes, the connection is a bit tenuous …

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Originally located in the village of Great Ayton in North Yorkshire, where Captain Cook was born, the building was brought to Melbourne in in 1934 by the Chemist and Philanthropist Russell Grimwade, who gifted it to the State of Victoria in honor of the celebration of the upcoming 100 year anniversary of the settlement of Melbourne (1835). The owner had put it up for bid, on condition that it be moved to someplace else “in England”, but (according to Wikipedia) when the highest local bid had been £300 versus Grimwade’s bid of £800, she was ‘convinced’ to change that requirement to “in the British Empire.”

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Originally sold as the home of Captain Cook’s early days, the cottage is now only called “Cook’s Cottage” because later historians, rightly, called foul. While the initials J.C. and the year of 1755 had been engraved into a lintel above one of the doors… the JC did not denote James Cook the son and Captain, but rather James his father, a farm laborer who was originally from Scotland.

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The engraved lintel (covered in plexiglass, I assume for its protection from vandals)

What is not known for sure, however, is was the house built in 1755, or possibly rebuilt… or just purchased by Cook’s father. Also, since James Cook, the Jr., was born in 1728, and had moved away from home at 16 — which was normal at the time, he would have been 27 by 1755, the year engraved probably with his own home; this, in fact, was was the same year he had joined the Royal Navy in hopes of greater advancement, after having already served in the British Merchant Navy where he had been promoted about as far as he could in that profession, i.e., already an adult man with a career and his own private life…. Therefore, it is HIGHLY unlikely that he had actually ever LIVED in the house, at best he may have visited, it was therefore a misleading to continue to call it “Captain Cook’s Cottage”…

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The laminated 3-ring notebook you can reference if you want to know more about the house

The Cottage itself is open every day from 9 to 5, but you have to buy a ticket. These can be found across the walkway at the information building/Visitor Center and Conservatory, which also has a cafe, where you can have a meal, pamphlets about other things to see and do in the area

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And of course a gift shop…. with some very cute items for sale that I had not seen elsewhere, so worth checking out if you’re shopping for souvenirs

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I think these were hand-made Xmas tree ornaments, but they’re cute enough that even I’d buy them … the seemed to be made of pine prickles shoved into a form, sculpted and painted, or something of the like

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Although a bit steep for a rubber ducky at $14.95 AUD, I was seriously tempted to buy one of these …. afterwards I found a few other museums with sections devoted to Captain Cook that also sell them… for the same price. I might give in and buy one next time see it.

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Once you have purchased your ticket you cross over to the cottage and enter through a gate that scans your ticket (like at the airport). Inside were two docents dressed in period garb whose job it was to help orient you, or have their pictures taken with you (which I didn’t opt to do), or help you into the garb if you wanted to dress up yourself… but for the most part it’s all self guided.

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There were two 3 ringed notebooks of laminated pages devoted to the spot if you bother to take the time to notice them (almost no one did) located just in the doorway of the home (where folks would remove their coats and muddy shoes, I assume). The house consisted of a kitchen/living room/dining room with a running voice narrative that sounds like it’s supposed to be Captain Cook’s mother, talking about what it was like to live and work in the house

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Upstairs there was a narrow flight of stairs that were a lot steeper than we’re used to (most definitely NOT disability friendly), and required that visitors make way for each other going up or down

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You find a master bedroom, with more written explanation (and no voice narrative)

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and two small bedrooms, one upstairs and one down

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And in the back of the house is an herb garden

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Around the back/side of the house is the stable, which has been converted into a sort of museum/movie theater

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I am pretty sure I watched four different movies that were on display there, one about Captain cook discovering Australia, one about the sale and transport of the house, one about the history of the house, and one about his parent’s lives. One of the cool things was there were three screens, one of which was showing the same movie at the same time, on a smaller screen, with Chinese subtitles. Every time Chinese visitors stepped in I would point them towards that, because they tended to walk in, see the main screen, hear the English, and looked a little sad… only to have me point out the Chinese screen and have their faces light up… I’m thinking one of the docents should have been in there doing that.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2526.jpgBeyond the cottage, I found that overall Fitzroy is less of a garden, in my mind (relatively few flowers), and more of an urban green space, with tree lined avenues that before air-conditioning probably offered much needed shade in the summer heat. While it has some boring almost obligatory stuff, like the Grey Street Fountain… UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2514.jpg

…. and the River God Fountain, both of which are perfectly nice

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…these looked pretty much like any old fashioned/classic fountain and garden you’d find in any park …anywhere (especially in France or the UK). What’s cool/different about the garden is that it tends towards things that are a bit more fanciful and fun, such as it’s children’s playground, which has a dragon slide and a giraffe like swing set

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And a model Kentish Tudor village. The story on this is kind of cute in that all the homes were built by an elderly pensioner, Mr. Edgar Wilson who lived in the UK and liked to build these things out of concrete, just for fun, as his hobby. He gifted them in 1948 to Melbourne in appreciation of the food that Australia sent to England during WWII

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The town included a scale model of the house owned by Shakespeare’s wife (the one he quickly abandoned) the widow Anne Hathaway. I will admit that when I read the garden had a Tudor Village, I was expecting something radically different from what I found. In my minds eye I expected to find some full or at least half sized Tudor homes that you could walk through … maybe with some staff, sort of like what I had found at Cook’s cottage…. at least tall enough for small children to enter… but nope

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Instead I found a collection of homes that at best might come to my knee, and the homes are all completely fenced off, so little kids can’t really enjoy them much either… and adjacent to the Tudor village I found the the Fairies Tree

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which I was sad to see was ALSO surrounded by a fence, so that you can’t get up close and personal with it. BUT after I got home and studied it I understood why — did NOT find any description of this at the spot. This tree isn’t some modern thing made for kids to play on … The Fairies tree was carved back in the 1930’s by a local artist and author by the name of Ola Cohn, into the stump of a 300+ year old River Red Gum tree which had been original to the garden. Ms Cohn (who was of Danish extraction) was a well known (her portrait hangs in a museum in Canberra, and the link includes an image of her carving the tree) and respected local artist, who went on to be appointed a Member of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, an order of chivalry — a sort of knighthood, for her work in the service of art. Because she’d carved it into what was then already a dead tree, there’s been issues with degradation and rot over time, so that in 1977, in order to stop the rot, they had to pull the whole thing out of the ground, removed wood that had already rotted — they found a perfectly preserved mummified Brushtail possum at that point (!!!), and then treated the remaining tree with chemicals to stop any further rot… remounted the tree into a concrete base and returned it to the garden.

So I get the history of the things, and why they might want to preserve them… but I have to think little kids don’t really enjoy either of them much as a result. So Nice but kind of meh…

I think my favorite fountain was the Dolphin Fountain, which seemed to be much more modern in construction….

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in fact it turned out to have been built in 1982, and for some reason the park’s website said that it was “controversial” but didn’t explain why…

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After some research I found this website explaining, some of the argument was regarding WHERE in the garden this $30,000 gift payed for by Dinah and Henry Krongold and created by a sculptress by the name of June Arnold should go… or if it was suited to the Fitzroy gardens at all because it wasn’t in keeping with the garden’s naturalism (???)

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Not surprisingly, little kid (according to what I’ve read) LOVE this fountain as it’s the only one they’re actually allowed to interact with… I saw parents lifting their small children up on to the rocks, etc.

Luna Park, Sydney Australia

Luna Park, in the suburb of North Sydney Australia (kiddy-corner across the bridge from the Opera House) is a classic, “historic” amusement park (of the pre-Disney variety). It was based on (and, like ALL the Luna Parks around the world, is named after) the one in New York City’s Coney Island. It is one of the few such surviving parks to feature “Fantasy architecture” in the Art deco Style, and interestingly… is one of only two amusement parks in the world that is protected by government legislation… and is listed on the NSW Heritage Register

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Luna Park was initially constructed in 1935 and has a history of on again off again, operating schedules, due in part to a fairly dodgy safety record, which included a catastrophic fire in 1979 that killed six children and one adult, called the Ghost Train Fire.

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As a result, during its off years, some very high-end housing developed around the location, whose residents complained loudly when the park began operations again. This resulted in a compromise of removal of rides that were deemed too loud … because of screams of happiness from riders, and limited operating schedules at night… making it basically impossible for the park to be profitable.

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Apparently there used to be a really good roller coaster back here… the residents of high-end condo’s complained and it was removed.

That said, Luna park still consists mostly of rides I can’t ride (because of my inner ear issues)… with the possible exception of the Ferris Wheel, and games I’m no good at, so that from my perspective while it’s very PRETTY to look at the place it’s really not a draw, for me personally… NOT the way Disney parks are… and the few times I’ve been there it’s looked pretty empty, all things considered.

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Blue Whale, Catoosa, OK

For the life of me I’m not sure WHY the Blue Whale of Catoosa, Oklahoma has become one of Route 66’s must see locations.IMG_1145.jpgIt’s noted on ALL the lists. But, it was built in the early 1970’s, so it’s not even concurrent to the route’s hay-day, and on top of that it’s not even particularly impressive. IMG_1226It started off as a roadside attraction, a sort of very low rent amusement/water park…. (the whale offers multiple ways to slide in to the water) …. but when compared to pretty much ever amusement park or water park out there… I’m talking really really low rent.IMG_1225

AND, considering it’s supposed to be a water slide type thing, you’re not even allowed to swim in the water there anymore…

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It’s fairly close to The Nut House, which also for the life of me doesn’t deserve its acclaim. All I can thing of is that folks traveling the route are sort of desperate for things to see along it at time (there’s really NOT much in the way of mother nature to look at along this stretch of the road) and were grateful for almost anything diverting where they could stop and stretch their legs.

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That said, according to wikipedia it’s actually made it on to TV more than a few times (usually as part of a reality TV show).

Grand Canyon Railway experience; Williams, Arizona

The Grand Canyon Railway experience is essentially a two-hour train ride from Williams, Arizona to the Grand Canyon… if you return the same day (another two hours) you will have gotten to stay there for about three hours (so a taste). OR — if you are the hiking type, you can opt to stay at a hotel at the Canyon and return a different day.  The “experience” includes a cute little show before the ride, and then some entertainment while on the train, and concludes with a “faux” train robbery on the way back. All in all, when you add up the prices, IF you’re doing route 66 and just want to pop over to the Grand Canyon, to see it… this actually works out to be a pretty good deal money wise.

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The CHEAPEST ticket, which is what I got, was $62.86. This was for the Pullman car, their most historic car (No air-conditioning) and did not include the park entrance fee (as I have been buying the National Park’s yearly pass since I first started traveling… I have yet to not get my money’s worth — when you buy the ticket you tell you have it, when you pick up the tickets you show them the pass and they write down its ID number to submit to the park officials). IF you consider the cost of gas (maybe 3 hours there and back — the train does it slower), wear and tear on your car, finding parking, etc etc…. and the fact that the train includes live entertainment … I think it’s worth it to do it once.

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A lot of the people who do this opted to stay at their hotel as well, but this is not necessary and not what I did. (There is a Harvey House at that location, but its not where you’ll be staying… and you don’t have to stay at the hotel to see it. Essentially, its been replaced by a fairly generic building that looks like pretty much every other 3 star hotel along our highways)… I stayed at the Howard Johnson located about 2 blocks north, for substantially less money. (That said the hotel is OK, but the owners … an Indian couple… just don’t get it. The rooms are clean and comfortable, the WiFi was BLAZING fast… but the security is suspiciously lax. IF You go to this hotel make sure you check in early enough that you can change rooms if you need to. The hotel has no elevators, and they won’t help you with your bags if you have mobility issues like I do. The room I ultimately got did NOT have a chain on the door, or any sort of way for me to keep hotel staff out while I was sleeping. By the time I realized this — after dinner — it was too late to change rooms. The next day the woman who works for them — MUCH better at customer service than they are — and I looked for a suitable room, and we had to go through THREE before we found one with a working chain.)

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So… I checked the weather report for the next day at the Grand Canyon the night I arrived, and it said rain… eek… then checked again the day of, this time specifying the South Rim (which is where the train goes) and it said no rain… phew!! NOTE: It’s important to remember the Grand Canyon is a VERY big place, so when checking the weather, be specific for which part.

With the Train Ride, come a whole package of entertainments. The first happens BEFORE the ride and is cute… I THINK the whole point of it is actually a ploy to make sure customers are on site and ready to go a good 45 minutes before the train leaves… but still…it adds to the ‘ambiance’

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Looking around at the audience, I at first thought there may be one person in this whole crowd under the age of 40, But then I took that back … I just spotted a baby. That said, it was late September and most kids were in school, so the crowd consisted mostly of retirees who prefer to come to places like this when they are LESS crowded. It’s a cute show, funny even, more than a few good laughs. You can tell the actors have done this may be 1000 times but they’re not phoning it in

After seeing the show myself, and many days later… I watched this video and I guess the attitude of the organizers is, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” because in spite of the fact that I saw the show almost six years after this YouTube video was posted — this is almost word for word the same show I saw, just with different actors.

The actors do a bit of improve around what the audience does or does not do, and the audience member roped into the skit, but otherwise, I saw the exact same show. (They even found a guy wearing shorts who had a bag… albeit this bag was backpack)

IMG_3008And after the show, that’s when you’re led by the actors to the train, and you line up by the car you’re assigned to…IMG_7977.jpg

And this is where things got wonky. So the deal is this…. APPARENTLY if you sign up for the Pullman (which is the most affordable ticket) they tell you to show up at 8:30 like everybody else, for what you think will be a 9:15 departure…  but you won’t actually Leave until 10:00. IF they get a lot of people showing up, they’re going to break it up into two trains (according to the manager this is on behest of the park which doesn’t want a boat load of people showing up at once. He said they could easily put everyone on one train). Everybody who bought a ticket on the expensive cars — the ones with the observation bubbles on top of the train for better viewing…. and the MOST expensive cars which are old-fashioned luxury (but with air-conditioning), have a buffet and dedicated performers who are there just for you  — THOSE trains… they’ll leave on time … Those of us with tickets that have air-conditioning but no bubble up top, or those like me who purchased a Pullman car with no air-con…. they’ll leave you standing around and waiting for the second train (and there was NOTHING on my tickets denoting that).

GRRRRRR……

You do however get the same amount of time at the park because your return train also leaves later. That said, once we were on the train, it was actually very pleasant… first a guy comes on, and makes sure you understand all the thing you need to know

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Then we were introduced to our carriage’s aid, the girl in the blue and white outfit, and the photographer (the guy in the red shirt with the massive camera, whose job it is to wander between carriages taking photos on first leg of the trip, and then he tries to sell you your photos on our return one).

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While the downsides of being in the cheap Pullman car is that it goes last (leaving the station) and has no air-conditioning, the upsides are that one, it’s always placed directly adjacent to the dining car (they told me this when I was booking the trip)

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Although this also means everyone in the cars behind us has to pass through us to get to said dining car… for their drinks, snacks and ice-cream

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The other benefit… and this is the more important one I think… is that sitting in an old-fashioned Pullman with no aircon traveling through almost wild country it’s really easy to almost feel like you’ve drifted back in time to when train, horse or foot were your only options for getting out west … a mental fantasy that the more modern trains don’t really support.

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On the way to the Canyon we were serenaded by this young musician, who wasn’t bad

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And then on the way back (when we were all really pooped) we were played at by this guy

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Who was trying just a bit too hard to get us to be clapping our hand and tapping our feet, when all we really wanted to do was rest…

Towards the end of the ride to the Canyon we passed an area that had clearly had a forest fire, which made me wonder how it’d happened and if it were the fault of the train, or the people on it.

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And then right as we were approaching the park, our carriage’s aide (the gal in the blue and white outfit) began to tell us things like, that the red ponderosa pines that grown in the park have a scent. If you smell vanilla, than the tree is a female but if you smell butterscotch, the tree is male. (I never managed to get close enough to one to test it) That, and there’s a $500 fine for feeding the animals … even if it’s a squirrel who stole it from you .. and that we should all beware because they WILL steal your food if you let them.

And then we got to the park….

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And THIS is what you get to avoid by taking the train

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That said, the ride back was also very pretty,

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and the rain that the first weather report I had looked at promised, could be seen approaching us in the distance

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But it included rainbows, which made me happy….

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(and in fact greeted us as with a very light rain just as we arrived back in Williams, which got more intense later in the evening).

 

Towards the very end of the ride, we had a last bit of excitement…  there’s a train heist… it’s actually kind of cute

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(My video this time… Note how the train obligingly stops for the 2 riders )

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But somehow, even though there were TWO riders attacking the train, and TWO gunmen stealing from us… somehow one of them managed to be in two places at the same time (note: two horses carrying two gunmen, two gunmen stealing from us… yet one left over to take care of the horses… this happened how?)

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And then you’re ever so politely robbed. (They threaten to take your stuff, but never do.) We were instructed (by our conductor lady in the blue outfit) that if we wanted to we were supposed to take any money we wanted them to actually rob, and fold it and hold it out for them to take, which a few of the customers did… tips in other-words.

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And then a little later (after the thieves have had time to get all the way to the back of the train, where apparently the guy who plays the sheriff was waiting to arrest them (it’s a shame that only THAT car gets to see the arrest) he waltzes them back through the train to the front, and we all get to laugh about how law and order triumphs.

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Before I got someone to take our photo, the guy with the long white hair, who plays the sheriff, turns out he’s actually Dutch, has spent some time living in Japan, and speaks 9 languages at least a enough to get by… I didn’t get around to finding out how it ended up here doing this.

One thing to beware of… on the train, while you’re close to town WiFi is pretty decent, and from time to time it’ll pop back up…. but at the park and for most of the ride you can forget about connectivity. As such, save your battery and just put you phone on airplane mode to save the battery. This is especially true at the Park… Even though there is signal, you just can’t connect to it because TOO many people are also trying.

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Swing Dancing at Disneyland; Anaheim, CA

Wow! Every Saturday night Disney hosts a dance at Disneyland! WHO KNEW? The dance happens in Disneyland’s Royal Hall, a spot normally reserved for character meet and greets. (How they convert it from that to a dance space I don’t know.)

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I was wandering around Disneyland on a Saturday night, heard jazz music, assumed it was yet another of the obligatory Disney entertainments and found THIS… HOW COOL!

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From what I read, not only does this dance happen almost weekly (and has for a few years) but it has a dedicated group of regular dancers.

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From what I could it’s a very friendly crowd of very good dancers (for the most part) and more than few of them seemed to know each other. Back before my inner ear broke making spinning an impossibility for me anymore, I’d totally have been here every week.

Where to stay when booking a Tokyo Disneyland Vacation?

Let’s assume that you are a major Disney fan who has probably never been to Japan before and your number one priority on this trip is to visit Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea, because you a have to see ALL the Disney parks… but you ALSO want to see Tokyo!  So, that said: Where do you stay?

In short, the answer is to find lodgings as near as possible to Tokyo Station. Look for either hotels, and/or (if you want to save money) any of the many Airbnbs that are an easy walk to the JR line’s Tokyo station, on what I like to refer to as the green circle (i.e., Yamanote) line. (If you want a GOOD and cheap Airbnb in that neighborhood, and I’m talking under $67/night for your own apartment, there are more than few, but you’ll need to book well in advance, and by that I mean months.)

I strongly suggest doing this rather than staying at any of the Disney Resort hotels out in Urayasu City, next to the JR Maihama Station which is located directly adjacent to Tokyo Disneyland (but which is NOT Tokyo). Here’s why….

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The red arrow points to the Maihama Station, which is directly adjacent to the Disney properties.

Firstly, Tokyo is NOT Orlando, and while Orlando might not have much to draw you away from the Disney parks, Tokyo does. That said, Tokyo station sits right in the center of historic Tokyo; it is just east of the government buildings, the Emperor’s Palace, and it is an easy walk away from the Ginza, which is just south of it (i.e., wedged firmly between the historic and the modern);

Additionally, the station sits at the nexus of the red Marunouchi Line, which will take you directly to Tokyo Disney, and the green Yamanote line, which will take you to pretty much everywhere else that you as a tourist might want to go while in Tokyo. And while from the above map, Tokyo might not look so big, the reality is from Shinjuku (the station on the far left of the circle, and also one of the major Tokyo hotspots) to Disney by train will cost close to $4, and take you a good 40 minutes to an hour of travel time, where as from Tokyo station to Disney is a short 15 minute hop that costs all of around $2.20. And will drop you off a five minute walk from the front gates of Disneyland.

To get to DisneySea is a good 20 minutes walk through the adjacent mall and past multiple parking lots, so I STRONGLY suggest changing train lines at that point and buying a ticket for the Disney only line that circles the park (unlike at the Magic Kingdom, here transportation within the kingdom is not free).

And, as I will discuss in more detail later in this post, Tokyo station is an attraction in and of itself.

Let’s face it, Orlando is essentially a midsized American town with a population of only around 270+ thousand, making it only the 73rd largest city (out of 19,354 “incorporated places”) in the country. While established in 1875 (mostly as a farming town near which rich people from northern cities, like Chicago, went to spend their winters after the first highways were built — and hence still has some nice historic homes from that period in the adjacent suburbs, like the aptly named Winter Park), the whole of the Orlando greater metropolitan area (population 2,387,138 million) does not in fact, other than some good food and a TON of amusement parks have much going for it. In fact, of that population 32.4% of the inhabitants, a 2003 study found, owe their employment to the Disney parks; and this number does NOT include the jobs created by Universal, Sea World, etc.  The whole area really doesn’t have ALL that much to offer in the way of history and/or culture; granted, there’s a decent ballet, some local theater groups (made up of mostly park employees yearning to be noticed by Broadway or Hollywood), a tiny handful of museums (if you don’t include tourist traps like chocolate museums) but really not much. Yes it is one of the entertainment capitols of the world, with an unusually VAST number of amusement park options within its metropolitan area, and hence an equally large selection of top of the line restaurants drawn there to feed the affluent locals, and tourists who want to eat outside of the parks; but I mean really, how many people go to the Orlando area for their vacation, and even bother stepping foot in downtown Orlando’s museums (let alone Kissimmee proper) or even know that those historic homes are even there? Let alone do any of them care? In fact, till Disney, in the mid 1960’s surreptitiously decided to buy up land in order to build his 2nd Disney park in the undeveloped areas between Orlando, Florida and Kissimmee, most people had never heard of the place. So if you go to Orlando, really… most visitors want to be on or right near the parks, because that is what they come for as a tourists.

Tokyo is not that, this is FRIGGING Tokyo! Tokyo’s history dates back to the late twelfth century, and has been the capital city of Japan since 1868. Historically it’s one of the largest and oldest and yet most modern cities on the planet, with a city population of 9.2+ MILLION (versus Orlando’s 270,934 thousand), with a greater metropolitan population of 13 million (to Orlando’s 2.4+ million)! In fact since 1968, it has been the world’s largest city. In terms of culture and history, it’s up there with London & Paris, let alone New York City,  for criminy sakes!!  It’s one of the best, most most modern, most exciting cities in the whole world with some of the best food on the planet (in Tokyo the bar is raised so high that even places like Denny’s are forced to be better than they would be here in the US)! So, as much as I LOVE me my Disney, if you come to Tokyo and don’t take some time to see Tokyo, especially if you’re someone whose not already very well aquainted with the place … then I’m sorry to say it, but something is seriously wrong with you.

Now granted, the Disney corporation wants you to stay at one of their hotels, or at least at one of the non-Disney owned hotels located on what is ostensibly their Island…. and of course that is an option. There are a HUGE number of hotels options scattered around the island, and in the case of DisneySea, there is one that is essentially inside the park. And you could, if that’s what you want to do, come to Tokyo Disney and JUST see all of what is on offer within the Disney bubble. The Hotels are of course very nice, and have a lot of nice amenities — as is ALWAYS true for Disney properties

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While there’s one of these princess beauty salons inside the park, there’s also one at the hotel
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As noted elsewhere, convienience stores in Japan area a whole different experience, and the one located in the hotel specializes in all products Disney, along with a really nice selection of affordable eats to take up to your room or eat there …. (in fact I am pretty sure that the same seafood gratin meal I ate freshly made while inside the park was being sold cold in the refrigerator here)

And Disney has built a fairly large mall called Ikspiari (similar to Disney Springs) with over a hundred businesses (shops, restaurants, a food court, etc.,) as well as a 16 screen movie theater, that is attached to the train line that links Disneyland and DisneySea.

And by the way, if you go to DisneySea, even though you could walk everywhere, you will REALLY DO want to buy a ticket for the special Disney train extension, in part because it kind of rocks.

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but mostly because, while it’s an easy five-minute walk from Maihama station to Disneyland, it’s a good 20 minute+ walk from there to Disney Sea… and who in the heck wants to do that at the end of along day at the park?

… but the reality is if you stay at the Disney resort, while you’re very close to Disney and save maybe a 40 min total in commute time per day (depending on how long it takes you to walk from your hotel to Tokyo Station)… there’s really not anywhere near as much to do out there as there is in Tokyo proper. And if you have never been to Toyko, even just the walk from your hotel to the train, or hanging out for a late night bite (the park and the mall essentially close around 10pm, while Tokyo is a 24 hour town) after returning from the park, will give you a taste of the place. In fact, you could easily spend a full day just exploring the maze that is Tokyo train station, because with its two hotels, art museum, multiple department stores and independent shops… and lord knows how many restaurants, it arguably has way more to offer than Disney’s tiny Ikspiari does.

For those who don’t know, Tokyo Disneyland is located on what at this point is mostly an artificially constructed island that sits in Tokyo Bay. While there’s always been a small island in the area, which is the Edo River’s delta, that previously held a tiny fishing village, the reality is that island was greately expanded through the creative use of garbage. There are in fact a whole series of these constructed islands in the bay, and ALL of them are essentially Tokyo’s Garbage dump. Once you get outside of the resort, what you’ll find is a small sleepy bedroom community for those who either work at the parks, or can’t afford to live in Tokyo proper, i.e., not much. You’re really, in my own opinion, better off staying near Tokyo station.

Halloween at Three Disney Parks, worldwide: Paris, Tokyo, & Orlando

Every year, all of the Disney parks celebrate a selection of the major ‘western’ holidays, and this includes Halloween. As no two parks are exactly alike, neither do any of them do the Halloween festivities alike. As such, I’ve decided to dedicate a blog post to those differences — As I experienced them. So far I’ve been lucky enough to be in three of the six Disneyland parks during Halloween: Paris in 2008, Tokyo in 2013, and Orlando in 2015 (the only one called the Magic Kingdom instead of Disneyland).

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So for instance, while Disney bounding (wearing modern street clothes that echo Disney characters) is something you’ll see year round at the US parks (if you know what you’re looking for)

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The girl on the left is Disney Bounding Snow White, the other girl is doing Minnie mouse

full-out costumes/Cosplay for anyone above the age of 14 are not allowed at any of the parks, in order to protect the brand and more importantly for fear of people confusing staff with visitors; except, that is, during the Halloween festivities (although even that is regulated, and the rules –often as reflection of security concerns — vary by park). That said, the extent to which the regular customers embrace that varies wildly both individually and culturally. That said, each of the parks has a very different ‘flavor’ as to how Halloween is done.

 

Paris Disney: where Spooky and eerie Halloweens rule

On October 29, 2008 I was in Disneyland Paris; this was back when it was still called Euro Disney Resort, and controlled not by the US Disney corporation but rather by local interests, and as such, much may have changed in the last 10 years in how Halloween is celebrated. To be honest … my experience of the park at that time was that, as a whole sucked rocks so bad that I was not at all surprised when a few years later I heard that Disney US had suspended any expansion plans, and initiated a take-back of control of the park; it was a process that began with the aforementioned name change, and that was completed just last year — so that they have only recently announced plans to begin the expansion that had been intended from when the park first opened in 1992. When I visited, it had been open about 16 years, was managed still by a subsidiary, (created I think in order to make the French feel like they were in control of the thing…) and well, like I said it sucked… BAD. The staff was impressively lazy and rude (oh have I got stories!!), the bathrooms was offensively dirty and smelly, and well… a far cry from “The happiest place on earth.”

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All of the Disney parks are intentionally designed to provide similar yet unique experiences, as a draw for folks like me to visit all of them, and Paris has some really good rides. For example, while I think EVER park has a variation of the “Haunted Mansion,” most of these rides tend to be more fun and quirky then they are spooky or scary, with the exception of the Paris version. Called “Phantom Manor,” this ride dark to the point of being down right creepy; unlike the other versions it includes a cohesive story line that is intentionally eerie. (Read this story synopsis to see just how much).
(Also watch this ‘ride-through’ YouTube video shot in 2015, and even if you don’t speak French you’ll note that music is also a heck of a lot spookier than at the other rides.)

Here’s also an interesting hour-long documentary on YouTube about what the Imagineers where going for when they developed the Disneyland Paris’ Phantom Manor, if you’re so inclined.

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The Phantom Manor decorated for Halloween, complete with the cast member in the green gown, with a pumpkin head, standing on its balcony behaving ghoulishly towards the crowds

ANYWAY, back to the topic at hand…. the same way that Disneyland Paris does a creepier haunted mansion, it also has a much creepier Halloween than the other parks do. Rather than the normal array of Disney characters posing for photos with the guests, you’re more likely to see staffers dressed as happy Jack-o-lantern and smiling ghouls were everywhere. As are Pumpkins, ghoulish decorations and the almost constant presence of orange paint, so that from the moment you walk into Main street, you are CLEAR that Halloween is being celebrated at Disney.

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Note the orange paint on the ground in he upper right corner

For the kids there were bright red candy apples (ala the poison apple from Snow White), and face-painting

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Halloween themed gifts and collectables

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And pumpkin themed decorations, both to look at and to have one’s picture taken with

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All of these is relatively normal, although the more you looked at the decorations, the more they became dark, grotesque and marginally perverted.

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Children posing with burial vaults?
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There’s something vaguely “Little Shop of Horrors“-esq about this decoration
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I’m not sure what is going on with this skull, but I surely didn’t expect to see something like this at a Disney park
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Is it me, or is this dark-o-lantern eating the brains of character below her?

So yes,Halloween at Disneyland Paris’ like it’s haunted mansion ride, is a good deal darker and more ghoulish than what one would expect from a Disney attraction.

 

Tokyo Disney: subtlety and nuances of Japanese culture

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On October 24th, 2013, while working in Seoul, South Korea as a professor, during one of the school holidays I had a chance to visit Tokyo, mostly with the intention of going to Tokyo Disneyland (YES, when I go to Tokyo I want to go to Disney, what’s your point?). This was actually my 2nd, or possibly third visit. The first time(s?) I went was back in the mid 1990’s while I was doing a summer internship with Eisai Pharmaceuticals in Tokyo. This (third?) visit in 2013 was my first chance to see the adjacent DisneySea park, which opened it’s doors in 2001. While there are things about the Tokyo Disney parks that frustrate me the Tokyo parks are among my favorites, in large part because they offer some of the best people watching opportunities. (Among the annoyances: the ATM’s in the park do NOT accept foreign bank cards — the mind boggles, especially since the food carts are cash only. For the restaurants you need a preexisting reservation, or you have to stand in line, literally — and sometimes for over an hour. There is no ‘come back at around 2:00’ with a txt messaging system if something opens up earlier, like in the states. And unlike the US parks there’s no service that allows you to spend your money at will and have all your purchases sent to the front gate for later pick up.)

The major reason the people watching is so good is that the Japanese love all things ‘Kawaii, aka, cute‘ to the point of a national obsession, and when the Japanese go to Disneyland they embrace that element of all things Disney with childlike abandon. As a result, wearable for sale items, like Disney ears, hats etc., exist in a much larger variety than in the USA, and they are pretty much ALL gender neutral. Unlike the USA where almost everything is Minnie Mouse (with the requisite bow), since men and boys are as likely to want to wear these things as women, Disney provides. So, not surprisingly, when they celebrate Halloween, they want to embrace the cute (and not the scary, like in Paris), and Disney delivers on that end as well.

That and, as the Japanese also appreciate subtlety in aesthetic (Shibui),  the holiday is a lot less, “in your face’ than it was in Paris.

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The above image for instance is Disney Main street during the Halloween period, compares it to the pictures of the same local in Paris that I posted and you’ll noticed a distinct difference. In fact but for the orange flowers on the lamp-post there really isn’t much in the way of Halloween happening. A little further into the park, just past main street, and you begin to see decorations,

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but again the decorations are no where as near in your face as in Paris ones, in fact its as though you’re being eased into Halloween. As there are bigger ones to come, behind the castle. Think of the parks this way, you enter the park through World Bazar (otherwise known as Main street USA) at 6:00 (where there was almost nothing in the way of holiday decorations), while it is possible to exit from there directly to AdventureLand, MOST people keep going straight, towards the castle, which is at the center of the clock.

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Once they’ve reached central park, most people will then go left to Adventureland which in Tokyo has New Orleans theme/Pirates of the Caribbean, 7:00 on the map, but it really isn’t till you hit

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Westernland (9:00) that you start to see decorations, and these are for the most part, up on top of building, rather than down at ground level (i.e., in your face)

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Note how the decorations mimic actual carved pumpkins, and are fun, rather than something out of child’s nightmare, like in they were in Paris… also older Japanese women will often use an outing to Disney as an excuse to wear their Kimono.

Even those decorations are not the garish bright orange that we saw in Paris, but a more subdued naturalistic looking pumpkin type decorations that could almost pass for real.

When you leave Westernland (10:00), heading towards where Crittercountry and Fantasyland meet — where the haunted mansion is located, the decorations get much more vibrant, but still cute, and with a lot of pumpkins that almost look real.

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Note all the people politely lined up in order to have a staff member take their pictures with the decorations. (In Japan this is done with the customer’s cameras, I was just there a few weeks ago, and they still don’t have the photo services with professional photographers at the ready, that you see at the Magic Kingdom.

And then of course, there are more of them around the Haunted Mansion (please forgive the poor quality of the photos), if anything, the tree of jack-o-lanterns that sat before it is probably the scarriest decoration in the whole park

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Forgive the poor quality of these photos, my old iphone 4s wasn’t up to the job

When you get into Fantasyland at 9:00, that is where you the colors and decorations become intense, but by this point you’ve been eased into it, so it not in any way shocking to the sensibilities, like in Paris. (If you DO go to Tokyo Disneyland I strongly suggest going on the Winnie the Pooh ride, there’s nothing like it in any of the other parks — it does NOT ride on tracks — see this video.)

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And then, if you enter Toontown section of the Disney park, which is designed for young children, that is when the decorations become their most extreme, but EVERYTHING in that section of the park is oversized and cartoonish, so it’s in keeping…

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A common thing at the park is to see girls in pairs who have gone to extreme lengths to dress alike, like these girls have… also note the little girl in the duck costume

After Toontown, Tomorrowland didn’t have much going on in the way of Halloween decorations, so that the total effect is of the most extreme decorations all being towards the back of the park (10:00 to 2:00, if viewing the map as a clock)

In addition to decorations, Tokyo Disney had some Halloween/orange themed eats (had all of them, they weren’t bad… although I remember wondering why the cream in the doughnut was orange flavored instead of pumpkin).

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One of the “big things” at Tokyo Disney is there are popcorn carts everywhere, but (unlike in the states where they’re pretty much either buttered or caramel, with the most distinctive thing about the carts being each has a different character spinning the wheel)

in Japan (sort of like their obsession for flavored Kit Kat bars) there’s a WIDE variety of flavors come of which change seasonally, and some of those can get a bit wacky… the curry smells better than it tastes (in my opinion), and I strongly suggest avoiding the shrimp flavored popcorn.  (And here’s a few different videos I found on YouTube of people taste testing various flavors)

That said, just like at the popcorn places in the US parks, Tokyo Disneyland sells collectible popcorn cases that vary with the themes of the rides, or major holidays like Halloween. The major difference I’ve found between the two is that the US ones seem to be intended for single use and hence fall-apart quickly — I purchased a vampire Mickey at DisneyWorld’s Halloween party and it fell apart as soon as I got it home — the Japanese popcorn cases are impressively durable; in Japan if you bring it back on subsequent visits you will get a small discount on the cost of a refill, so they are built with that in mind; after I purchased the one pictured below, I gave it to the 7-year-old daughter of the friends I was staying with, she and it was reported to me that she continued to use it for about a year afterwards as a purse, in addition to bringing it with her to Disney for popcorn refills. That is how strong these suckers are.

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Flavored popcorns at Tokyo DisneyLand and DisneySea, and the special Halloween case being offered

And of course there is a special Halloween influence to the parades

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But as I said, some of my favorite aspects of Tokyo Disney is the people watching, because just as the whole Cosplay movement began in Japan, the Japanese are far more likely ‘enthusiastically’ embrace the opportunity to show up to the parks in FULL costume (this article was posted 2015 two years after my visit —  at which point it had gotten so extreme, seriously check out the article, that in 2016 I heard that Disney had finally reeled them back in a bit) than other folks do. Back when I went in 2013, the trend was still a bit more laid back, but still impressive. Then, as I noted below the picture above, one of common trends was seeing girls coordinating their outfits, and the other is men who are unabashed in wearing cute stuff alongside the women (something you’d almost never see in the states).

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Two middle-aged Japanese housewives embracing the orange: standing up they were also coordinated, but in a much more subtle way than younger girls

That said, what really blew my mind was I saw a few different couples (men with their girlfriends and or wives) where the wife was dressed normally, but man was dressed in what the Japanese refer to as “Lolita Fashion” a trend that’s been going on in Japan for about as long as I can remember (so at least 30 years — I remember buying some of this back when I was in my 20’s and Japanese sizes still fit me). Think of it as a MUCH cuter version of Goth fashion.

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Don’t be confused, the person in the purplish dress is most definitively a male, the one in the Alice in Wonderland influenced baby-doll outfit I’m also pretty sure is a guy (look at the hands), but in this case not entirely

Like I said, the Lolita style is a very big deal in Japan, people will invest thousands of dollars in these outfits (they are definitely NOT cheap), and there are malls in trendy places like Harajuku and also Shinjuku that have whole floors of department stores devoted to the devotees of these styles. I even once spotted a Japanese girl at Epcot in Florida who showed up wearing Lolita fashion (the moment I saw the dress, she was ahead of me in line at one of the Epcot food festivals, I started chatting with her in my limited Japanese).

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This Japanese girl was at Epcot in 2017 with her boyfriend, she is also dressed in a Lolita Fashion; She’s wearing a Beauty and the Beast inspired outfit — note her dress’ fringe pattern
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Minishops in a Mall in Shinjuku that has a full floor devoted to the style

 

 

So while these styles are a thing in Japan, and some of them are highly influenced by Disney characters, such as Lewis Carol’s Alice… it’s a questionable line of are they Cosplay or fashion. As such, individuals who show up wearing it other than during Halloween may face some problems with the costume police at Tokyo Disneyland’s front gates. That said, what amazed me was not people were wearing it, but that Japanese MEN were wearing it… and wearing what was decidedly and clearly women’s fashions.

One of the things about Japanese culture is that there’s a time and a place for everything. Japan has had a long history of cross dressing, and, apparently, Disney’s Halloween has become one of the times and places where it is now acceptable for the growing trend of Japanese men with cross dressing tendencies, which the Japanese refer to as Otokonoko, to embrace their inner princess. So if you’re there during Halloween, make sure to keep an eye out.

As I mentioned before, there are currently two parks at Tokyo Disney, the Land (which is essentially Disneyland like in Los Angelus, or the The Magic Kingdom) which is a family oriented park, and DisneySea, which has a distinct nautical theme (although with touches of Epcot, as it offers a chance to “travel” to places like Venice, the Arabian Coast, Cape Cod & historic New York, Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island, a lost river delta in South America (which has the AWESOME Raiders of the Lost Ark Ride), and an area for smaller children (that you really HAVE to see, it’s awesome) aimed directly at the Little Mermaid — you get to essentially go “under the sea.” DisneySea is considered the more “adult” park, and was intentionally designed to be suitable for taking your girlfriend on a romantic date.

Here while there are Halloween decorations they are kept subtle throughout the park, when you first enter the park, there’s a venetian styled banner above the doorway that if you look very closely, says Halloween 2013… and has a bit more orange in it that usual, but that’s about it…

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And then when you pass the gate and enter the central lake — effectively the design replacement of garden at the center of the Magic kingdom — again more orange has been added to color pallet, but that’s about it.

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This statue had a carved pumpkin hanging by a cord around his neck (??, no I don’t get it either)

When you enter American section again there are orange banners that say happy Halloween

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Note the couple (boyfriend/girlfriend) off to the side dressed alike, this tends to be more of a Korean trend than a Japanese one, based on what I’ve seen. (So there’s a good chance those two are in fact Korean,

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and the decorations that were at ground level were so naturalistic that I remember thinking they might have even been using real pumpkins, trying to replicate what it would look like in the states, but I wasn’t sure. IMG_0942

And of course there were girls dressed alike, and men embracing the cute, just like across the park at Tokyo Disneyland.

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Besides the decorations I showed, I found very little else (in the non-European sections of DisneySea that were celebrating the holiday. For instance, while you might think this is a Halloween decoration,

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in fact it’s a “Día de Muertos” decoration that’s a permanent fixture in the South American section of the park.

Disney in the DisneyWorld:

In the US while there are a nice selection of Halloween decorations scattered throughout the park, MOST of them can be found near the entrance and in the main street area

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Other than that, really not so much… Instead Disney has used it as yet another opportunity to separate you from your money. I.e., if you want to really experience Halloween at the US parks, you’ll need to buy a special ticket (pass holders only get a tiny discount, and only on low attendance nights) to”Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party,” (which was a counter bid to Universal Studio‘s far more popular “Horror Nights/Fright Nights” events. (I think I’ve noticed a pattern, in that the discounted nights at Disney seem to be the ones that are scheduled directly against a Horror night, so that tells you something. Personally I HATED Horror Nights, but I’m 50, it’s not designed for me, even the Wikipedia page admits as much.)

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The special even essentially consists of three additional aspects, which even though I had a top of the line season pass with no block out dates, etc., I had to pay an extra $69 for… 1) access to trick or treating from various spots around the park (the candy was pretty run of the mill);

2) The ability to watch a special show called the Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular:

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then 3) a special parade, called Mickey’s “Boo-to-You” Halloween Parade

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The coolest parts I got photos of, the headless horseman, especially when he pops up in a very dark spot, like where I was sitting is very cool…

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And then if you’re sitting in a dark place the ghosts from the haunted mansion dance by, and they’re slightly glow in the dark

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And then finally, 4) what I feel is the REAL draw for hard-core Disney fans, is the ability to stand in some VERY long lines… I’m talking like well over an hour in some cases, to have you picture taken with character that are never otherwise available to have your picture taken with, which includes ALL of the dwarves at one time, some of the Disney villains:

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Found a YouTube video where a woman goes through all the things to do at the party, and since unlike me she wasn’t on a diet, she ate all special party only deserts they were selling (yah, you paid $69+ to get in, and you have to pay to buy these special deserts)

So that said, one of my favorite things to do is people watch, and since Halloween is one of the few times the parks allow adults to come in costume, it can get interesting.

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The bottom left group was really creative, they’re the emotions from the Pixar movie “Inside out”
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This family, the adults came dressed as the Orcs from Frozen while the children came dressed as Anna, Elsa and Kristoff (how brilliant is that?)